A modest proposal

It has become painfully clear that the WA Legislature is not willing to fund Higher Education in a significant way.  We have seen the State contribution to the UW fall by 1/3 in the past two years.  Also the “Rubicon” has been crossed:  resident undergraduate tuition now exceeds the State subsidy.

There are several responses to this challenge:

  1. Reform the Legislature. Expend effort in reforming the Legislature’s attitude about higher education, to include substantial funding.  There is a possibility, however slight, that such an effort would succeed; it will require revolutionary ideas, such as an income tax.  Success will take years, and will take constant attention to preserve.  Success in this endeavor will require the UW to become demonstrably sensitive to constituencies around the State that it presently dismisses.
  2. Despair. Assume nothing can be done.  Spend the rest of our careers mired in nostalgia about what once was, weep for what could have been, and employ our wit to indulge in bitter sarcasm about what will not be.  Attend the demise of the UW as the preeminent R-1 university in the Pacific Northwest.
  3. The AAUP strategy: demand merit raises for the faculty.
  4. Divorce the Legislature. Move aggressively to a “high tuition/high financial aid” model.

In many ways, Option (1) is the best solution, because it asserts the dignity and importance of higher Education in Washington State; that education in general, and higher education in particular, is an absolutely critical component of civilized society in the twenty-first century.

It is tempting to make “return on investment” arguments for why the the University of Washington matters; that (for example) our activities generate $2 tax dollars for every $1 that we receive.  My own home Department, Electrical Enginering, generates just over 200 BS, MS, and PhD degrees each year, on a State budget of about $7M/year.  Those 200 students will have salaries of $50k and up, and have careers of 20-40 years.  Thus, Electrical Engineering is stoking an engine that produces $350M of economic activity with about $7M… and really it’s better than that, once you factor in the IP, support staff, supply chains, etc.  Without fudging the data too much, one could conclude that the UW Electrical Engineering returns at least $5 tax dollars for every $1 tax dollar that it receives.

As much as I am proud of Electrical Engineering’s productivity, it is important to remember the enormous value of other University activities.  In 1974, the University of Nebraska (Omaha) began the Center for Afghanistan Studies.  You can imagine the puzzlement of a Nebraska State Legislator staring at a directory for the University of Nebraska, Omaha, and wondering “what in the world are we doing studying a backwater basket case like Afghanistan?”  Well, 27 years later, I guess those legislators (or at least the Feds) found out that maybe Afghanistan was a bit more interesting than they supposed.  In the nine years since 2001, thousands of lives, and a trillion or so dollars have been spent — so maybe a Center for Afghanistan Studies doesn’t seem like such a dumb idea after all.

This Washington Legislature does not seem like an educable bunch.  I’ve been peering at the WWW pages of the Washington State Senators.  I have to admit that I’ve made it only through the first quarter (alphabetically (by surname)), but here’s what I have found so far

Becker through Hargrove (13 WA senators) [see this link and links below, including the Bio of each of the Senators ]

  • 3 with AA degree or less
  • 6 with BA or BS
  • 2 with MA/MS
  • 2 with a JD or PhD

[N.B. it wasn’t always easy to figure out the claimed degrees.  Some were clearly being coy.]

Of the degrees, the most common degree themes were “Business” and “Criminal Justice.”  This is not intended to sneer at “Business” and “Criminal Justice.”  In fact, I would like to tip my hat to these professions, which have decided to jump into politics and conduct the business of the State.  However, exactly one of these 13 Senators (Lisa Brown) has a PhD and actual academic experience (faculty member at Eastern Washington University).

With that, we move on to Option (2): Despair. Let’s face it, we’re depressed and distressed by the stupidity and anti-intellectualism of the State; the idiotic tax structure, and the apparent Extra Special Loathing for the UW.

The obvious tactic is for each of us faculty to immediately obtain faculty positions elsewhere, with healthy salary increments reflecting our obvious worth.

So, let’s leave Seattle!  Oh, how they’ll miss us when we’re gone!  Are you with me!?!

(insert sound of crickets here)

With that, we move on to Option (3): the AAUP demand for merit raises for the faculty! This approach is passionately heartfelt, well fueled with spirited, popular, and absolutely irrefutable rhetoric, and a recent overwhelming Faculty Senate vote!

Of course, the AAUP position is also completely bonkers, as would be a patent application for a perpetual motion machine, or a law against gravity.  AAUP-UW, presented with the sack of Rome, has concluded that it is time to rosin up the bow and commence with some arpeggios.

So we proceed to Option (4): Divorce the Legislature. Other State universities have.  Maybe it’s time for us to, as well.

By divorce, I mean this: move to a “high tuition, high financial aid” model; put the Ivy in the Public Ivy.  We’re already headed that way, after all.  Here is, essentially, what the Legislature says:

  • The UW can charge whatever tuition it likes for non-residents.
  • The UW cannot charge whatever tuition it likes for residents.
  • The UW is obligated to have 30% of its new undergrads be transfer students.

The logical response to this market force would be to admit no resident freshman at all.

There are a few other Interesting Constraints upon construction of the student body, but those above are the biggies.  So, here is My Amazing Higher Education Plan to rescue the UW:

  • The State should give the UW complete tuition authority.  We can charge whatever tuition we want! … with a catch:
  • We have to charge the same tuition for every student, resident and non-resident.

Here’s what this achieves:

  1. it puts State residents on an even playing field.  Currently State residents are significantly less valuable than non-residents.
  2. it doesn’t let the UW get into stupid, useless, and destructive battles about whether Engineers are more valuable than English majors.
  3. The State can still say, “you know, we’ll give you $3000/year for every FTE resident” which would make residents *more* valuable (the State is currently coughing up about $5000).  Then the UW would be even *less* expensive to the State than it is now!
  4. We faculty — we noble, amazing, inspirational, genius, and extremely good-looking faculty — we faculty would get raises, every year, pretty much no matter what.
  5. Although it is a bit counterintuitive, the “high tuition/high-financial aid” model tends to do pretty well in dealing with the economic and class diversity thing.  Walk around Harvard sometime, and you’ll see a student body that is more diverse than the UW.  Yup.
  6. Faculty, if you’re skimming my note … see item (4) above.

So, what is the downside?  You’ll have to agree that my brilliant plan sounds good … too good to be true.

Here is The Downside:

  • the UW will depend upon the Enlightened (or tolerant) Wealthy for its support, rather than Society as a whole.  The high tuition we charge we will have to dearly earn in order to persuade The Wealthy to be willing to send their Sally to the UW while supporting another Johnny or two on the side.  We will have to depend upon The Wealthy to be Voluntary Socialists.  This will irk some (such as my regular lunch companion).   Quite frankly, we will probably succeed in the Voluntary Socialist Thing.  Harvard is an existence proof for this.
  • It’s not clear that the Middle Class will be able to afford to send their sons and daughters to the UW for a decade or so. We’re kind of at that point now, frankly.
  • It is an admission of defeat to the powerful forces arrayed against The Intellectual Life. It is an admission that civil society is unwilling to have people puzzle over the nuances of linguistic intricacies of the Ainu, or the computability of Ramsay Numbers, or distribution of of condoms in sub-Saharan Africa.  It is an admission that the “university” will be a kind of post-apocalyptic kernel of knowledge, a pearl of irritation and preservation in the oyster shell of societal chaos.

The advantage of my idea is that it will work.  The disadvantage of my idea is that it is a collective, societal admission of defeat.  Personally, I think I’m willing to accept that defeat, that gambit; but I won’t deny the cost.

0 Comments Add Yours ↓

  1. theaveeditor #


    Well thought out argument for privatization.

    The big plus, it seems ot me, is the concept of a state supported ivy. However, as you present it, I do not see how that could come to be.

    A flaw arises because privatizing the UW can only be considered if we … the people and the legislature .. simultaneously decide to change the rest of the system .. that is the State and Community Colleges.

    Without that decision, privatization leaves too many open issues:

    1. Would you privatize all higher ed?
    2. If not, would the UW-Ivy (and WSU-Ivy) be competing with Evergreen and Eastern?

    Let me build a somewhat different tack on the course you lay out:

    I propose that a restructuring of the higher ed. system. This restructuring would be intended to maintain WA’s competitive edge at the high end (UW/WSU) while shifting most of the effort at mass education to less expensive, State and Community Colleges. My proposal would also strengthen those programs without incurring an increase in cost per student.

    Here is the idea:

    1. AUW: State Ivies: WSU and UW would merge into one school with two campuses. In hope of getting a dollup of endowment, I will suggest this school be called Amazon U of Washington.

    AUW: AUW would be MUCH smaller than either UW or WSU. The goal of AUW would be to serve the best of WA state students AND to attract great students who may become WA citizens later.

    Other features of AUW:

    1. AUW would preferentially take freshman and those freshman would have to meet a very high standard. Transfers would be allowed ONLY based on rigorous criteria.

    2. Students at AUW would pay a uniform tuition. The State .and AUW would provide financial aid programs and named scholarships based on the State’s contributions in the form of salaries and value of real property. Efforts would be made to build an endowment dedicated to covering tuition.

    3. A State budget would still be needed because AUW would provide, for a fee, support for coursework across the State higher ed system, This support would utilize state of the art programmed instruction and distance learning to enhance efforts by college faculty at the State or community Colleges.

    Students taking sufficient courses could EARN an AUW degree given from their college or could use the AUW courses as the basis for a transfer as Juniors or Seniors.